A version of this article appeared on The WorldPost. Below is the text as I originally wrote it.
Who are the likely casualties in Donald Trump’s proposed trade war with China? During the campaign, Trump famously called for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods, an act that would virtually guarantee retaliation from Beijing. Several major U.S. corporations have already been singled out by Chinese state media: Boeing could lose major orders to Europe’s Airbus, Apple’s supply chain could be disrupted, and American agricultural giants could see steep tariff hikes on soybean exports to China. As real as those hits to bottom lines might be, you won’t see many tears shed for the boards of Fortune 500 companies.
But a more sympathetic and troubling case is found in a sector that could find itself on the chopping block: U.S. public universities. That’s because growing numbers of international students — particularly those from China — have been a lifesaver for public colleges in an era of dramatic cuts to public funding for higher education.
This year the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities topped one million for the first time ever. The 328,547 Chinese students studying here made up almost one-third of that total and nearly double that of second-ranked India, according to the Institute for International Education’s new Open Doors 2016 report.
The vast majority of these students pay full-tuition straight out of their family coffers, effectively subsidizing local students who benefit from in-state discounts. In California, out-of-state and international students pay roughly $38,000, almost triple the $13,400 tuition for local students. Last year Chinese students alone infused $11 billion into the U.S. economy, while international students support over 400,000 jobs in the U.S, almost half of these in blue collar sectors such as retail, restaurants and accommodation.
Despite Trump’s claim that he “loves the poorly educated,” public higher education is one slice of the economy that America can’t afford to sacrifice. America’s public colleges are both a vital part of many small town economies, and one of the last bastions of economic mobility for the working class. The New York Times’ annual College Access Index declared the University of California system to be an “upward mobility machine,” consistently fostering opportunity for students from poor families.
The problem is that massive state budget cuts mean that the “upward mobility machine” is constantly low on fuel. States have been decreasing funding for public universities for decades, but since the 2008 economic crisis that defunding has gone into overdrive. Between 2008 and 2016, per-student state funding for higher education has fallen in forty seven of fifty states. States such as Illinois and Arizona have seen per-student funding cut by more than fifty percent. Not coincidentally, over that same period the number of Chinese undergrads at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has multiplied by a factor of twelve, from 257 to 3,115.
But are Chinese students taking the place of local students, or are they subsidizing local enrollment with their elevated tuition?
California has been a living laboratory for this question. In the years following the financial crisis, the University of California system saw its funding cut by one-third, while the number of Chinese students at campuses like UC Berkeley nearly tripled. Those full-tuition Chinese students were life-support for the cash-strapped system, allowing it to hold local enrollment totals steady despite devastating budget cuts.
But the surging international enrollment led to a public anxieties that admission was being auctioned to the highest bidder. An audit by the state claimed that local students were hurt by the infusion of outside students, and that the UCs didn’t sufficiently expand enrollment for disadvantaged minorities for whom public universities may be their only option. In exchange for increased funding, this year the UC system capped international enrollment and increased local enrollment by 15 percent, including large gains for underrepresented groups.
That complex balancing act — ensuring that expanded international enrollment supports local students — is one best carried out at a local level. Instead, Donald Trump’s proposed policies and off-the-cuff pronouncements threaten to cut off this last resort source of funding for American higher education.
First, the policies. Faced with a trade war, cutting Chinese enrollment at U.S. schools would be one of Beijing’s stronger weapons in an otherwise limited arsenal. Higher education is one of the few sectors in which the United States boasts a substantial trade surplus with (i.e. depends heavily on) China. While Beijing has few direct ways of stopping students from studying abroad, Chinese officials have many indirect levers for manipulating these flows.
Public schools across the U.S. — from Humboldt State University to NYU — have formed partnerships with Chinese institutions that act as funnels for studying in the United States. Those programs could be dissolved with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. China’s Ministry of Education could easily crack down on the vast number of “international schools”, special bilingual high school curricula designed as a runway for students planning to study abroad (a move that local officials in Shanghai initiated even before the election). More hard line forms of retaliation could extend to cutting off currency transfers or even withholding passports from students.
But beyond any specific policies, Trump own statements appear likely to slow or reverse growth in international students more broadly. Students in countries such as India, the second-largest feeder country and the fastest growing, are already reconsidering plans to study in the U.S. due to fears of racism and Islamophobia. Saudi Arabia, the third-ranked feeder country, could see an even steeper fall. While Chinese people were not themselves a direct target of Trump’s rhetoric (“I love China!”), racial tensions surrounding the election were enough for the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco to issue a warning and offer a hotline for Chinese nationals victimized by racist attacks.
The potential hit to higher education in many way pales in comparison to the other dangers of a Trump presidency: rising hate crimes, dangers to immigrant families, and climate deniers at the EPA, to name a few. It’s also far from clear whether President Trump will in fact follow through on his pledge to punish China for trade policies that he has compared to “rape.” Trump himself has said that he wants the U.S. to retain talented international students who graduate from U.S. universities. (In the same interview, now “senior counselor” Steve Bannon decried the presence of too many asian CEOs in Silicon Valley.)
But as President of the United States, both words and actions have consequences, and often not those one intends. Any trade war with China likely won’t bring jobs back to America’s rustbelt towns — multinational corporations are already chasing cheaper wages to Jakarta or Mumbai. But trade frictions with China could have very real consequences in some unexpected places, from Madison, Wisconsin to Austin, Texas.
(Find the original published story here.)
BEIJING — Ding Xuanyu and Ding Xuancheng were born just a few minutes apart and are separated by one Chinese character in their names. The twin brothers grew up going to the same schools with the same teachers and the same group of friends.
It wasn’t until high school that their life paths diverged: Xuancheng (English name: Frank) decided to apply to college in America, while Xuanyu (English name: Richard) would stay in China and face the country’s notorious college entrance exam.
Those choices will put the Pacific Ocean between them come this fall, but in the past three years they have already reshaped their lives. The divergent demands of U.S. and Chinese college applications have been molding their habits and stretching their brains in ways that reflect both the twins’ personalities and the different educational systems of the world’s two superpowers.
Frank has spent the last year composing personal essays about his youth, taking the SAT in his second language and studying fashion at New York University summer school. During that same period, Richard has been logging 15-hour days drilling math, chemistry, physics, English and Chinese, the core subjects tested in the college entrance exam this June.
They’re both artistically inclined, but the lighter touch of U.S. college applications has given Frank more time to pursue interests like dance, fashion and sketching. The divide even seems reflected in their haircuts: Richard sports a straightforward crop, while Frank’s hipster undercut has him frequently sweeping long bangs out of his eyes.
Curious and engaged with the world around them, the twins have found different outlets for their ambitions. Frank, who speaks fluent if imperfect English, is a cultural mash-up, referencing eighth-century Chinese poetry and 21st-century New York fashion in the same sentence.
“What’s most interesting to me is combining and comparing the clothing styles between the old time and now,” Frank told The WorldPost. “Not just the old times of China but also European countries. Those combinations may be something that people never even thought about.”
Richard has had the same international exposure as his brother, but he feels a sense of obligation to the country and culture he grew up in.
“If everyone just goes to America, China will never truly develop,” he said. “If China wants to grow into its own country — not just a second America — Chinese people need to feel more responsibility for their nation.”
Part of that responsibility means looking to China’s unique intellectual traditions and drawing on them to propel China forward.
“Lots of people in my generation love entertainment and international things. They’re going toward a kind of uniformity, where everything is the same across countries,” he said. “China has its own unique things, like Confucius and Taoist thinking. It’s just that they haven’t been fully expressed.”
Those big-picture aspirations have shaped the twins’ choices of colleges. But first, they’ve got to get in.
Chinese college admissions are determined solely by a grueling two-day test known as the gaokao (pronounced “gow-cow”). The test is sometimes compared to the SAT, but in reality there is no comparison. Gaokao is an all-consuming black hole at the end of high school, the culmination of over a decade of intellectual cramming that makes American high schools look like daycare centers.
Chinese parents — many of whom grew up in desperate poverty — often see their child’s gaokao performance as the one chance to vault the family into the middle class (and, incidentally, secure a comfortable old age for the parents). As a result, high school seniors often study more than 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week. Some schools have even hooked students up to IV drips during cram sessions and installed suicide nets at dorms.
For decades, any Chinese teenager with ambitions beyond a factory job had to go through the gauntlet that is gaokao. Not anymore.
A small but rapidly growing percentage of Chinese students are opting to do their bachelor’s degree abroad, with the bulk of them arriving on U.S. campuses. Facing dwindling endowments during the 2008 financial crisis, American universities threw open their doors to a wave of international students, many of whom pay full tuition.
That shift was well-timed to the rise of a new class of affluent Chinese that sees an American diploma as a sound investment and a status symbol. Even with access to U.S. education largely limited to the country’s upper crust, the number of Chinese students in the U.S. has seen double-digit growth for years. For the 2014-2015 school year, the total number of Chinese students in the U.S. was a record-breaking 304,040. That was more than double the number from India, the second-highest country.
For many of those students, fear of gaokao can be as strong a factor as the pull of American education. Richard grimaces slightly when listing his weekly test-prep schedule: on weekdays he’ll be in class, taking practice tests or studying from 8 a.m. to 11:25 p.m., with an hour each for lunch and dinner. He takes Friday evening off, but often logs another eight hours of studying on both Saturday and Sunday.
By Chinese standards, Richard’s school is relatively liberal. Consistently ranked as one of the best in the country, it requires students do physical education and focuses more on teaching content than how to beat the test. Still, the head-to-head competition on scores suits Richard well.
“If I see I haven’t done a good job on something or I didn’t do well in a competition, it doesn’t matter if I like this thing or not, I still want to climb that ladder,” Richard said. “[Frank] is not like that. … He’s optimistic. I can’t really just enjoy things the way he can.”
As draining as gaokao preparation is, it has the virtue of simplicity: a single test score; a single standard for admissions. Frank dodged the gaokao bullet, but he soon found that what American applications lack in intensity they make up for in complexity: AP classes, SAT tests, SAT subject tests, TOEFL tests, extracurricular activities, personal statements and letters of recommendation.
The last three items are completely foreign to Chinese education, leaving many students and parents baffled as to where to begin.
“I thought maybe in a good personal statement you’ll just show off your strong will to the guy reading this,” Frank said. “Like you’ll just say ‘I focused on studying math for four years.’”
Luckily for Frank, an admissions consultant intervened. The surge in Chinese applications to U.S. universities has spawned a new industry designed to help Chinese students get in. Employing young Americans living in China, these “educational consulting” companies charge from $5,000 to $45,000 for services ranging from legitimate admissions guidance and test prep to falsifying extracurricular activities and ghostwriting essays.
Frank’s counselors were in the legitimate camp, teasing different essay topics out of his own experiences and helping him proofread the final product. He wrote about memories of fishing in his home village and the inspiration he felt while reading Joyce Carol Oates.
Those applications went out to 10 schools, including NYU, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Washington. If he’s accepted, tuition alone could cost around $45,000 per year. At the top Chinese universities Richard is applying to, annual tuition averages around $750.
Frank and Richard’s mother, Wendy Wang, is largely willing to pay the premium for U.S. education because of her own experience abroad. In 2013, Wang took leave from her job as an executive at a state-owned bank to be a visiting scholar at Stanford, where the intellectual and entrepreneurial energy represented a “complete change” for her.
“What most impressed me was the openness of the school,” Wang said. “Everyone has enough space and freedom to do everything: in their lifestyle, their studies, almost every field.”
That contrasted sharply with the culture of Chinese schools and companies, where a deference to authority still dominates.
“[Chinese companies] still have a lot of rules, especially the thinking rules,” Wang explained. “You have to think ‘What does the boss think? If I make this decision how will other people think of that?’”
Despite supporting Frank’s decision to head abroad, she gets nervous at the prospect of him living an ocean and a dozen time zones away.
“The only thing I can look at is the credit card, just see how much money he’s spending,” Wang lamented. “I can’t know if he’s going to class, doing his homework, how his grades are.”
Given Richard’s test scores, he could well land a spot just up the road at the prestigious Peking or Tsinghua Universities. But lately Beijing’s suffocating smog has him considering applying to schools in Hong Kong as well (Hong Kong universities often combine gaokao scores and an English interview).
Watching her two sons taking on different applications, Wang reserves judgment on which system is better, but she feels gaokao has an edge in terms of simplicity and transparency.
“You know what five or six subjects they’re testing, so in your junior and senior years you review and you’re ok. It’s simple,” Wang said. “Even if your parents don’t give you any support, just putting the kid in the hands of the teacher is enough.”
With all his applications turned in, Frank said he’s a little nervous about the uncertainty of a making a life for himself at a new school in a new country.
“But,” he said, “that’s exactly the same thing that I’m interested in and excited for.”
BEIJING – When Tim Lin arrived at Miami University in Ohio – 6,763 miles east of his hometown in northeast China – he wasn’t quite ready for the whopping dose of American college culture that was headed his way.
On Lin’s second day in his freshman dorm he woke up to find a naked woman sleeping in his roommate’s bed (“Oh, so this is what it really is,” he remembers thinking). From there, Lin was quickly inducted into the rights and rituals of collegiate America – smuggled beers, campus controversies and senior job searches.
What struck him most upon arrival in the U.S.? Tequila shots and the crash course in sex ed.
Fast-forward three years from graduation, and blood is rushing to Lin’s head as he hangs upside down from a spine-stretching device at his startup’s headquarters in Beijing. A few yards away, his team of writers is mashing up the day’s slate of stories and blasting them out to hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in the U.S.
This is the headquarters of College Daily, a Chinese-language digital media startup tailored specifically to Chinese students in the United States and Canada. Star Wars posters and the New York Times front page from the first moon-walk adorn the walls. The content is sourced primarily from current students, and it reflects their needs: pointers for using Tinder (“Those interested in Chinese people are just in it for the novelty”), think pieces on Donald Trump (“taking America charging hysterically into the unknown – a place with politics, dark humor and 100 percent naturally grown hair”), and how-to guides on getting Social Security cards.
By mixing hard news from American campuses with practical lifestyle content, the editors have carved out this niche in a small but coveted market.
Explosive growth in admissions from China has made the country the No. 1 source of international students in the United States. During the 2013-2014 school year (the last for which there is good data), the 274,439 Chinese students in the U.S. were more than those from the next four countries (India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada) combined. Double-digit growth rates have almost certainly pushed that total above 300,000 this year, with around 80 percent pursuing bachelor’s or graduate degrees.
According to Lin, College Daily has 400,000 subscribers to its main news feed on the messaging app WeChat, and half of them are currently abroad. That likely makes it one of the most-read media outlets for this generation of Chinese students in the U.S.
It’s not just the huge numbers that make this batch of students notable – they also represent a new brand of overseas students. For the past 30 years, Chinese arriving on American campuses were the absolute cream of the academic crop. Many graduate students arrived on full scholarships, pinching pennies while pursuing technical Ph.D.s and a chance to make a life for themselves in America.
That has all changed.
A three-decade economic boom in China means that millions of households can now afford to splurge on a luxury overseas education. Many Chinese parents see American schools as a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the rote memorization involved in Chinese education. With U.S. colleges enthralled by the prospect of full-tuition international students, and a range of businesses willing tofalsify applications for students, admission is easier than ever for rich Chinese students with decent academics and some modicum of English.
The result is a complete reversal of stereotypes about Chinese students in America.
“Ten years ago nobody bought Mercedes, BMW or luxury brands. They bought second-, third- or even fourth-hand 1995 Toyota Corollas,” Lin told The WorldPost. “But right now it’s 2015. We see a lot of students fly first-class to the U.S. When they arrive in the U.S. they’ve already bought the [luxury] car. They ask the students who are already there to buy the car first and just give them the car at the airport.”
Also strikingly different are the post-graduation plans of this cohort. While no reliable data exists about current homecoming rates, students and observers say these students are much more likely than their predecessors to go back to China.
Just a decade ago, China was still a predominantly rural society — ambitious scientists and engineers who had clawed their way out of poverty saw little to go back to in their home country. One study reported that 92 percent of Chinese who earned doctorates in the U.S. remained in the country five years after graduation.
But China’s economic transformation and the wealthier family background of students have shifted the calculus. Attending American colleges is no longer the golden ticket out of an impoverished country. Instead, the undergrad lifestyle of Chinese students in the U.S. is starting to resemble that of many Americans: a time to cut loose, have fun and explore.
“They are enjoying the time studying there,” said Lin. “They’re not pursuing some better life. They can have a better life back in China.”
Zhuo Xing, chief content officer for College Daily, was one of the students driving a 1995 Toyota Corolla when he earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He says Urbana-Champaign’s nearly 5,000 Chinese students often socialized along class lines: Children of the super rich stuck together, as did middle-class kids whose parents had spent half their life savings on tuition.
Now overseeing a Beijing newsroom that documents these social circles, he worries about resentment directed at some Chinese students.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to demonize Chinese students who are enjoying their luxury life,” Zhuo told The WorldPost. “It’s no different than preppy students who are enjoying their American life.”
Zhuo witnessed a broad range of reactions to American lifestyles, with some friends joining frats and others socializing exclusively with other Chinese students.
“At the core of it, we’re still talking about individuals,” Zhuo said. “After all, it depends on them. How do you like that perspective? … Do you embrace it? Do you deny it? Do you want to crawl back to your own comfort zone?”
Tim Lin wanted to embrace it during his years in Ohio. He chose Miami University in part because it had few Chinese students. He says his straightforward personality meant it was easier to make friends with Americans than fellow Chinese.
But after graduation things changed.
“When I graduated from college, I believed in American dreams: I can get a good living, a good future in America, we follow the rules and blah blah blah,” said Lin. “But when we start to work we realize there is a glass door for Chinese students.”
Lin’s internship at a Silicon Valley accounting firm fizzled over cultural barriers. He was lost during football-watching parties with the partners, and he felt that the deck was stacked against Chinese and other Asians when it came to promotions.
A patchwork of internships and travel took Lin to Shanghai, Kenya and finally Beijing. It was there that he began writing the how-to tips and lifestyle guides that he wished he’d had during his time abroad. Eighteen months later, he’s armed with angel funding, full-time staff and the eyeballs of a key market segment.
He hopes with A-series funding, College Daily can branch out: open offices in California and New York, host college fairs, create new social networks for applicants. It’s a blend of ambition that would be at home somewhere between Beijing, Silicon Valley and Ohio.
“When Chinese students go to American colleges they immediately find out that life can be many ways,” Lin said. “Not a linear one, not a single way.”
“I want to thank America’s Flying Tigers,” Zheng Weibang says.
The story below first appeared on The WorldPost. To read the original and see more photos click here.
CHENGDU, China — When I enter his living room, Zheng Weibang plants his deeply veined hands on the seat of his wooden couch to help himself up. It takes effort, but there Zheng stands, ramrod straight on feet that have been on this earth for over 99 years.
“I want to thank America’s Flying Tigers,” he says, saluting his visitors.
It’s been 73 years since those American fighter pilots cleared the way for Zheng’s night raid on a Japanese airstrip. Zheng and his comrades cut through an electrical net defending the base, and timed their guerrilla attack to coincide with the American air assault. Together they destroyed two Japanese planes.
Those coordinated assaults marked a high point in China-U.S. relations that hasn’t been approached since. Beginning in 1937, American advisers, pilots and engineers aided Chinese Nationalist troops who were under withering assault by Japanese forces deep in the jungles of southwest China and Burma.
Four years before Pearl Harbor, Japan launched a brutal conquest and occupation of China that is still seared deep into Chinese memory. Japanese troops swept down from China’s northeast and across its eastern seaboard, unleashing civilian massacres, biological warfare and sexual slavery along the way.
Japan’s 1945 surrender will be commemorated in China’s blockbuster military parade held Thursday in Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping will flaunt China’s latest weaponry, and he will personally award medals to Zheng and other veterans of that war.
Recognition for Zheng and Nationalist veterans is long overdue in mainland China, where the ruling Communist Party was locked in a life-and-death struggle against the Nationalists both before and after World War II. For decades after the Communist victory in 1949, the Nationalists’ role in the war was minimized and those remaining in mainland China were subject to periodic persecution for their “political background.”
But this week, at least some Nationalist veterans — those that didn’t fight against the Communists in the subsequent civil war — are getting their due.
Zheng was 23 years old when he swore his oath:
“We pledge to leave our wives and mothers to go out on the battlefield. We hate the savage Japanese who have invaded our northeastern provinces and pillaged at the Marco Polo Bridge. We will not leave the battlefield until the Japanese are annihilated.”
That oath led him on a straw-sandal march to central Shanxi province. There, women working in the fields would run toward the secret Chinese encampment when Japanese troops came looking for them. The Chinese counterattack left Japanese troops fleeing, some losing their helmets in the process. Zheng and his comrades turned the helmets into pots for boiling porridge.
Small victories like that were tempered by a betrayal that forced Zheng’s platoon into a frenzied retreat through a swamp. He remembers hearing female soldiers screaming “Save us commander!” as they drowned in the muck.
Later Zheng was sent to southeast China and Burma where he fought to reopen the Burma Road, China’s only existing overland resupply. At the battle of Mount Song, Zheng and 300 fellow troops charged into a hail of gunfire.
“Bullets were whizzing right over your head,” Zheng told The WorldPost. “I was terrified but you just had to grit your teeth and charge ahead. If you don’t attack them, they’re going to attack you.”
With comrades falling on all sides, Zheng shielded himself with a dead soldier’s body as he crawled into a locust-filled cornfield. Only 53 of the 300 soldiers survived the mission.
While Zheng was fighting to open up the northern end of the Burma Road, Su Ziliang was building its southern extension, the Ledo Road.
Su was born in the southwestern city of Chengdu in 1925, six years before Japan captured northeast China and 12 years before it launched its full invasion. His father sold tobacco leaves, and Su grew up singing songs about Japanese aggression.
My fellow countrymen,
Come here and listen in,
In the east there lies Japan,
For decades there troops have trained,
Across Asia they hope to reign,
To destroy China is their aim.
Defying his parents’ objections, Su enlisted in the Nationalist Army at age 17 and took his first flight across the Himalayan “hump” to India. There he trained under American Gen. Joseph Stilwell, nicknamed “Vinegar Joe” for his acidic temperament.
After learning to shoot a gun and drive a bulldozer, Su began working alongside Americans to forge a road across mountain switchbacks and treacherous jungle. It was the first time Su interacted with anyone who was not Chinese, and it was the small kindnesses that stuck with him.
“I feel really grateful to the American workers,” he said. “Every day they would share their cigarettes and matches with us.”
For Zheng, the memories of battle remain etched into his body: toes shortened by a landmine, a burst eardrum and a stomach crisscrossed with shrapnel marks. When surgery was required to remove the shrapnel, instead of anesthesia Zheng got two nurses to hold down his arms.
Those painful memories are now a source of pride for Zheng personally, but the national historical narrative remains a source of tension.
After their victory over the Nationalists, the Chinese Communist Party hailed itself as national saviors who put an end to a “century of humiliation”– a period of foreign aggression and internal strife lasting from the Opium Wars through 1949. Credit for the victory over Japan was lavished on Mao Zedong’s rebel army, while the Nationalists were derided as toadies of imperial powers.
The next three decades saw wave after wave of violent “class struggle” against former landlords, intellectuals and members of the defeated Nationalist forces.
Zheng and Su grow hazier when talking about this period. Both say they didn’t fight in the subsequent civil war, and neither mentions outright persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Su used his wartime skills to land a job as a truck driver. Zheng worked as a butcher and then on construction teams, but when promotions were posted his name was never on the list. Both started families and now live with their adult children.
If post-war persecution soured Zheng’s view of the ruling Communist Party, he doesn’t let it show.
“When I see Chairman Xi,” he declares, “I want to say ‘Long live Chairman Xi! Long live the Communist Party!’”
Today Zheng lives with his daughter and granddaughter in a modest apartment in his hometown of Chengdu. In order to be heard, his daughter must lean in toward Zheng’s ear and practically shout. But his mind is still limber and his stories colorful. Every morning he goes for a short walk around the neighborhood, and he spends his free time listening to local operas on a handheld radio.
Across the arc of a century, Zheng has seen his country emerge from the shell of a rotted empire. Born just four years after China’s last imperial dynasty fell, he’s lived through warlordism, invasion, civil war, war with America, the largest famine in history, the Cultural Revolution, and a three-decade economic miracle.
“If the government isn’t good to the people, just getting enough to eat is a problem. How could you even think about going to college?” Zheng told The WorldPost. “Back then we were poor. I studied three years at a private school but couldn’t pay the tuition anymore. There was nothing we could do, and so I’m uneducated.”
Since the days of the Flying Tigers and American aid, U.S.-China relations have also been through the wringer repeatedly. The Communist victory meant a 23-year break in diplomatic contact. Now after several decades of cooperation, hacking and territorial disputes risk turning the relationship frosty again.
But for 90-year-old Su, it’s still the days of Vinegar Joe and the Flying Tigers that are closest to home.
“As I see it, America was friendly to us, so I’ve always admired Americans,” Su says. “If America hadn’t been there for us, this war would’ve been tough to win.”
This story originally appeared on The WorldPost. To read the original, click here.
BEIJING — Li Xue owes her existence to a potato-peeling accident. Her mother was skinning spuds 22 years ago when the knife slipped and opened a deep cut on her thigh. The resulting infection got so bad that Li’s mother says doctors told her she’d be risking her life if she went through with the abortion she had planned.
Until the policy was reversed at the end of October, China’s strict family-planning controls dictated that many families could have just one child or else they would be fined. As the second daughter in her family, Li was denied a hukou (pronounced “WHO-co”), a crucial household registration document that would endow her with rights as a citizen of China. And so she became one of an estimated 13 million “undocumented” Chinese people.
People without hukous have lived in China for decades as second-class citizens. They can’t legally go to school, hold a job, stay at a hotel, see a doctor, get married or even buy a train ticket.
They often scratch out an existence parallel to that of an undocumented immigrant in the United States: working low-paying or dangerous jobs, always at the mercy of employers and police. While they don’t live under threat of deportation, some of the fears run just as deep. An undocumented man from central China told researchers of his anxieties working on dangerous construction sites: “If I die, no one would even know my name.”
That may be about to change. Chinese President Xi Jinping led a meeting on Wednesday that pledged to grant hukous to all of China’s undocumented citizens. If carried out, that move would resemble the effect of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States: At least 13 million Chinese people — equivalent to the combined populations of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia — would be allowed to come out of the shadows. Roughly 8 million undocumented citizens lack a hukou because of one-child policy issues, with the remainder stemming from out-of-wedlock births, lost hukous and extreme geographic isolation.
It’s a prospect that Li and others like her greet with optimism tempered by decades of frustration with a Chinese police and courts that have manipulated or outright ignored laws inconvenient to their personal and bureaucratic interests.
“I don’t think it matters who says they’re going to solve this problem — what matters is that they actually do what they say they’re going to do,” Li told The WorldPost. “I don’t want these to be empty words. In these 22 years I’ve never actually experienced them doing what they say they’ll do.”
Li was born in Beijing on Aug. 11, 1993. Then, her mother was fired from her factory job and her parents — both of whom are legally disabled — were hit with a fine several times their annual income. They were told Li couldn’t get a hukou until they had paid off the fines they had incurred for having two children.
That practice is illegal in China — a hukou is legally guaranteed for all Chinese citizens regardless of family-planning restrictions — but became common after China’s central government, frustrated by missed population targets, instituted a “one strike and you’re out” policy toward local officials: When it came to promotions, a missed population target would outweigh any good marks on economic growth or other metrics.
“Everybody had to get in line with a very unpopular policy,” explained Mei Fong, author of a new book on the one-child policy. “The stick for the local officials was the [one-strike policy], and one of the sticks for the people was the hukou.”
Li and her family have spent the past 22 years protesting, petitioning, suing and appealing to media, all in attempt to correct what they say is the illegal and unjust withholding of Li’s hukou. Two decades of struggles against intransigent courts and hired thugs have instilled Li with a blend of idealism and cynicism: perpetual hope that Chinese law holds the key to resolving her problem, and fear that the Chinese legal bureaucracy will forever find ways to reject her right to legally exist.
Denied the chance to go to school, Li learned to read and write from her older sister. Her parents taught her how to file lawsuits, stake out government offices and generally make a ruckus. No one in the family has studied beyond than middle school, but they’ve thrown themselves into legal textbooks and court documents about family-planning regulations.
“I know how to use the law to protect my rights and I want to use it to fight for my hukou,” Li said. “I use these legal weapons, but so far they’ve gotten nothing for me.”
The family petitioned and protested outside of government offices. By 1995 — when Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Beijing declaring “women’s rights are human rights” and criticizing forced sterilizations often used to enforce the one-child policy — they had become such a thorn in local officials’ sides that they were put under house arrest, with guards stationed inside the home 24 hours a day.
“The way they keep surveillance over our house, the things that they do,” Li said, pausing and shaking her head at legal documents arrayed on the table. “There’s just no way to describe it in words.”
In the years since, the issue has become an all-consuming family obsession. Prior to the Beijing Olympics, Li staged silent protests in Tiananmen Square, holding a sign reading “I want to go to school” until she was dragged away. Li’s mother says she and her husband were repeatedly beaten by security personnel while protesting. Between 1998 and 2014, Li and her family brought over 20 lawsuits against family-planning officials and police, all ending in failure.
The police station responsible for Li’s hukou declined interview requests for this piece.
Li sees her problem as less to do with the one-child policy itself, and more with a Chinese legal system that protects its own. Her mother describes police, lawyers and judges as “one family,” and Li says she hits rock bottom every time the court rejects one of her appeals.
“When I hear that it just feels like these laws don’t exist — there’s nothing there that forces them to do anything,” Li said. “It’s just another regulation, nothing more.”
If this week’s announcements turn those regulations into action, it wouldn’t just be a victory for equality; it could also give a nudge to the slumping Chinese economy. Recent surveys show that 44 percent of those without a hukou are unemployed, with many more working jobs off the books. Reforms to bring these people into the fold could transform them from dependents weighing on family finances into independent and engaged members of Chinese society.
But according to Wu Youshui, a Chinese lawyer who has taken on aspects of the one-child policy in court, it will take more than an executive order to bring China’s undocumented population onto the grid. Many undocumented residents have never applied for a hukou for fear of the family-planning fines. Fully canceling those fines requires chipping away at vested interests in the family planning bureaucracy, as well as local governments who have come to rely on those fees for revenue.
“We won’t be able to change this family planning mentality in the next two or three years,” Wu said. “Optimistically speaking, it could happen in 2020 at the earliest.”
In the meantime, Li continues to petition the local police and courts. If she wins her hukou, she hopes to find legal work that would allow her to live independently for the first time in her life.
Asked if recent announcements have given her new hope, Li demurs.
“Over the last 22 years I’ve been through too much, seen too much — I can only treat this as a hope,” she said. “I think it’s too early to be happy.”
This article was originally post on The WorldPost. To read the original and see more photos click here.
WENPING VILLAGE, China — Rinchen Gyaltso sits in front of his stockpile of firewood, quietly muttering prayers while running his thumbs over wooden beads. His vision is fading and he can hardly see past the edge of the porch just a few meters in front of him, but his memories of life in Wenping stretch back eight decades. He has overthrown local landlords and served in the army, suppressed rebellions and directed collectivized farms.
And now, at 84 years old, he can finally turn on a lightbulb during the day.
Over the summer, the state-run power company hailed this cluster of villages as the last in Sichuan province to get hooked onto the electrical grid. After years of making do with a local hydro generator that only eked out some electricity after sunset, farmers in Wenping and neighboring villages finally took this baby step into the 21st century.
Provincial newspapers waxed poetic on the wonders of bringing electricity to the last villages of the highlands — an “epic engineering project” that marked a “major event in the historical progress of Sichuan.” Progress, yes, but the kind that shows just how slowly three decades of breakneck economic growth in China have trickled down to these remote corners of the country.
Sichuan province, in southwest China, borders Tibet, and at last count was home to just over 80 million people. The provincial capital of Chengdu is a modern city with world-renowned cuisine and a burgeoning tech scene. But roads heading west from the city slowly wind their way toward the Tibetan high country, where oxygen and first-world amenities grow scarcer.
Wenping lies about 130 miles west of and over 9,000 feet above Chengdu. With mountain roads often closed, the drive can take over 12 hours — the final two on a molar-rattling dirt road that follows a stream up the valley.
Pulling into Wenping, you’ll find a scene much like other villages across China. Men huddle in deep squats smoking cigarettes. Middle school kids yell “Kobe” while swishing (or air-balling) fade-away jumpers. Livestock wander the lanes at will.
The Tibetan village’s intricately carved doors and lushly painted window frames set these homes apart from those in majority Han Chinese regions. So does the anemic supply of electricity.
In 1949, during the the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover, electricity consumption in the countryside was close to zero — equivalent to each person turning on a single lightbulb for about 50 minutes a year. Rural electrification gathered steam during China’s three-decade experiment with a government command-and-control planned economy, but it really took off with China’s industrial boom in the 1980s and ’90s. By 2013, 99.7 percent of the country’s population had electricity, according to China’s State Council.
That’s impressive progress, especially compared to India’s 75 percent electrification rate. But it still left 3.8 million people — roughly the population of Los Angeles — in the dark.
While stadiums, high-rises and light shows in urban China guzzle electricity, Wenping and neighboring Er Dao Qiao village rationed what their small generator could gather from a babbling stream. The provincial power company publicly announced that this area was connected to the grid in early July, but during an August visit to Wenping and nearby villages, electricity access remained spotty during the day, apparently due to ongoing construction work. The WorldPost could not confirm statements by State Grid Sichuan Electric Power Company that every village in Sichuan province is now connected to the electrical grid. The company could not be reached for comment.
Despite lagging decades behind these metropolises in access to basic amenities, the village homes here are ahead of the curve in one department: propaganda posters. Around China, homes and restaurants often reserve a place of honor for an old framed portrait of the country’s founder, Mao Zedong. But in Wenping, many living room walls are plastered with several generations of Chinese leaders and the entire line-up of the current Politburo, all courtesy of the local Communist Party offices.
When discussing the new power lines, “the Communist Party is good” — a staple propaganda phrase featured in the hit 1950s song “Socialism is Good” — crops up frequently in conversation. The benefits of getting on the grid are cited repeatedly (“I can watch TV during the day”), but the question of why it took so long to get here doesn’t come up, at least not in the presence of an outsider.
Isolation has both spared this village the costs and denied it the benefits of China’s manic development model. With no industry and just one road, the valley boasts impossibly crisp air and a daily routine dictated by the sun’s movement across the sky. It’s a lifestyle that many Chinese urbanites say they aspire to but that almost none choose to adopt themselves.
Economic stagnation has also removed one of the greatest irritants in village politics: the constant seizure of farmers’ land for urbanization projects that meet development targets and fill pockets of officials. Conflicts over government compensation for seized land fuel tens of thousands of “mass incidents” — an expression the government uses to refer to everything from peaceful protests to strikes and riots — each year. But out here, where there are fewer lucrative contracts to win and no new highways to clear a path for, there’s just not as much worth fighting over.
With these immediate issues off the table, villagers’ attitudes toward the government are often based on political events of decades past. For Rinchen Gyaltso, the pivotal moment was when the Communist Party overturned the village hierarchy by deposing the landlords. (Tibetan names can be one, two or three words and do not follow a strict family-given distinction.)
“We were so happy,” he recalled. “Before we had no land, so we’d do the work and other people would walk away with the profit. They’d give you just a little bit of money. Those were tough years.”
When the Chinese Communist Party’s Red Army “liberated” villages, it would often encourage the peasants to persecute their former overlords. An enthusiastic recruit to the cause, Rinchen Gyaltso remembers some local landlords being beaten to death, and others being sent to brutal “re-education through labor” camps. He went on to enlist in the army, put down local revolts, and eventually work as a village official planning agricultural production.
Lhagon, who was born in 1945, still remembers the abject poverty that drove people here to eat wild plants in search of sustenance. For him, the real turning point came when China shook off the shackles of Maoism and began liberalizing its economy in the 1980s.
“People from my generation have really deep feelings about the country’s opening up policy,” he said. “You young people just don’t have those feelings.”
In the villages today, young people are growing up on a tri-cultural diet. Tashi Namyak’s two children have left for school and work in Chengdu, but their posters still adorn the bedroom wall: Kobe Bryant, a Tibetan lama and embroidery of the Chinese character for “good fortune.” While village elders still spend much of the day spinning Buddhist prayer wheels, the introduction of limited electricity over a decade ago meant NBA games and Chinese TV shows came streaming in each night.
Phurpa Gyal studies at a local Tibetan-language high school, and he’s using the end of his summer vacation to give free classes in standard Tibetan. Most kids here will grow up speaking regional dialects of both Tibetan and Chinese. Pacing the classroom, Phurpa Gyal slaps his thigh while leading them in rhythmic chanting, alternating between standard Tibetan and the translation into standard Mandarin.
Those will be the languages employed if school or work draws them out of thisvalley.With job prospects limited in the valley, many of the kids imagine moving to nearby cities, or to Chengdu at the furthest.
Chinese leaders hope electricity and eventually e-commerce will hook China’s remote regions into the country’s massive economic engine. That would theoretically mean new markets for goods, and skilled jobs in the countryside that could take some pressure off China’s packed cities. It’s a nice thought, but one that seems far way for Wenping: At minimum, it would require widespread broadband access and a road that doesn’t abuse every car that travels it.
For now, the benefits of electrification are lower key: more light for cooking lunch and some entertainment for those slow afternoons.
“I haven’t traveled anywhere,” Rinchen Gyaltso said with a smile, “but I watch TV.”
The below story was originally posted on The WorldPost. You can read the original and see more photos here.
YAOYU VILLAGE, China — For Liu Renwang, the village where he grew up is part home and part hell. Today he lives here in a one-story brick building that he helped build as a teenager 37 years ago. It’s surrounded by a small courtyard populated by dried-out corn husks and a few friends playing Chinese chess.
Walking out the courtyard gate, Liu turns left and strolls 30 yards down a village path before stopping suddenly.
“That’s it,” Liu says, pointing across the highway at the foot of the village. “That’s the hotel where they did it.”
By “they” he means seven members of the local police force. By “it” he means beat him as he dangled from the ceiling in handcuffs, poured boiling water over him while he squatted in a small metal cage, and hit him over the head with high-heeled boots until his short-term memory evaporated.
All in the name of justice.
Seven years ago, Liu was arrested and tortured until he confessed to the murder of a local village official. After five years in a jail cell, Liu’s conviction was overturned under new rules excluding evidence obtained through torture. Once released, Liu had a local artist draw a series of pictures illustrating the precise methods police used to torture him. The illustrations were picked up by Chinese media and quickly went viral.
Torture leading to wrongful convictions may be the darkest of the many stains on the Chinese criminal justice system. Weak investigative skills combined with intense pressure on police to solve all crimes have created a huge overreliance on confessions, often extracted under excruciating pain.
For years, stories of false confessions and wrongful convictions have haunted the nation. In several chilling cases, convicted “murderers” have endured torture and years in jail only to have their “victim” turn up alive. One provincial judge recently said that virtually all wrongful convictions in criminal cases relied on false confessions extracted through torture.
Liu’s ordeal illuminates the grisliest corners of China’s criminal justice system, and his release highlights a potential bright spot in the sweeping judicial reformsinitiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping: a concerted push to redress wrongful convictions and curb the use of torture in interrogations.
Xi and his predecessors have amended the criminal code to protect suspectsduring the interrogation process and exclude evidence obtained under torture. New pilot programs are attempting to break the stranglehold local government officials maintain over judges and verdicts. Earlier this year, the Chinese government declared it would abolish arrest and conviction quotas that warp investigations and trials. Those reforms all seek to tamp down the worst abuses and build public confidence in the judicial system.
“I think [reforms to address wrongful convictions] are actually a positive story of legal reform, and I’m not Pollyannic about the subject in general,” says Ira Belkin, executive director of the US-Asia Law Institute. “But it does raise the question: Can you make significant positive strides in these cases while all this other negative stuff is going on?”
To this day, the “negative stuff” abounds: a fierce crackdown on human rights lawyers, humiliating televised “confessions” by those who crossed authorities, the arrest or intimidation of grassroots activists ranging from feminists toenvironmentalists. Academics and activists say the scope and intensity of the crackdown has effectively crippled an emerging Chinese civil society that seeks to curb government excesses and empower citizens.
Somewhere between Liu’s release and the arrest of these activists lies Xi’s vision for the rule of law with Chinese characteristics — an efficient, rules-based system for ordinary citizens accused of ordinary crimes, but one that shows zero tolerance for grassroots challenges to Chinese Communist Party power.
That’s a model that aims to smother two sparks for social unrest: blatant miscarriages of justice and activists who publicize blatant miscarriages of justice. But given the sheer size of China’s sprawling judicial and police bureaucracies, Xi’s top-down reforms face a huge challenge. Can a highly centralized system — one that quashes all grassroots participation — possibly play watchdog over dingy interrogation rooms in villages across this vast country?
Yaoyu Village is a dusty collection of homes carved into the yellow cliffs of China’s Loess Plateau. Born here in 1963, Liu was the fifth of nine siblings who grew up hungry. In order to increase his income and marriage prospects, at the age of 19, Liu began spending 10 hours a day in the depths of a coal mine.
China’s industrial boom created a voracious appetite for coal, and mining paid better than farm work. After 15 years in the mines, Liu had a wife, three children and enough money to buy a truck that he and his brother used to haul iron ore and coal.
“Back then we weren’t rich, but if my family wanted something I could basically meet their needs,” Liu recalls. “I felt that we were doing all right.”
That upward mobility came crashing down in the winter of 2008. In the predawn hours of Dec. 10, a local village official was shot dead in his home. The murder occurred just days before village elections, and police were under intense pressure to solve the case.
Liu was in the first batch of 30 men questioned and released in the first day. His brother, however, remained in custody as a person of interest. He was one of the candidates running against the victim, and the deceased had allegedly slashed Liu’s brother with a knife over a business dispute. A few evenings after the initial roundup, the police gave Liu a call.
“They said they had something to ask me,” Liu told The WorldPost. “I finished my dinner and went down to the police station. After I left, I didn’t come back. I was gone for five years.”
On arrival, police shackled Liu’s hands and feet to a custom-made desk sometimes called a “tiger chair.” Rotating groups of officers interrogated him for two days straight, hitting him over the head every time he began to nod off. When that didn’t yield a confession, they hung him in handcuffs from a heating pipe on the ceiling. They would let him dangle until he began to lose consciousness and then put a brick on the ground that his toes could just barely reach. When he regained consciousness they’d pull the brick away. He says he didn’t sleep for 10 days.
“When I went back to the holding cell, my mouth was always crooked. I was completely deformed.”
The second round featured boiling coffee poured in his nose, an electrified baton for his neck and a small metal cage in which he was forced to squat. Liu’s hands were shackled to the front and his head protruded out a hole in the top so that his bodyweight pulled on his neck. The interrogation cycled through different police officers and methods of torment: metal files under his fingernails, boiling water on his head, old-fashioned beatings. Rinse, repeat.
When Liu’s first lawyer came from Beijing to meet with his client, he was turned away at the prison gate.
“They told him, ‘This is Zhongyang County. This isn’t the capital.’” Liu said. “‘You think you can see him whenever you want? You don’t have that right here.’”
The Zhongyang County Public Security Bureau and both of Liu’s lawyers declined to be interviewed for this piece. However, a blog post written in 2008 by Liu’s first lawyer describes being barred from meeting Liu in prison. Liu’s allegations of torture methods are also consistent with several accounts of police torture in the Chinese press and reports by human rights groups.
As the weeks went on, Liu’s pain, confusion and rage mounted until it felt like his head was about to explode. When he couldn’t hang on any longer, he started confessing to anything and everything they asked for. He did it with an accomplice. He did it by himself. He rode off on a motorcycle. He didn’t have a motorcycle. Anything to make it stop.
After 57 days and more than a dozen different confessions, it did.
Emerging from the interrogation, Liu was physically and mentally broken, but confident justice would be served. He told his cellmates he’d be set free as soon as he told the judge what happened.
It wasn’t until Liu heard “guilty, deferred death sentence” that the reality sank in.
“They all breathe through the same mouth,” Liu said. “If the police make a mistake, the prosecutors won’t correct it. If the prosecutors make a mistake, the court won’t correct it. They’re all just one dragon.”
Xi’s judicial reforms are aimed at slicing up that dragon. China’s courts have traditionally been cogs in the political and security apparatus — reliant on local officials for funding and police for investigations. Judges often find themselves at the mercy of local officials who use their power to shield a cousin’s factory or their own misdeeds in court.
Breaking down these local fiefdoms requires taking the power of the purse away from officials. Piloted reforms would move funding for courts up to the provincial level and create circuit courts that straddle political boundaries. This centralization of funding and oversight is intended to insulate the courts from the whims of local officials, legal experts say. This May, the government also hacked away at the power of local authorities to dismiss lawsuits, leading to a 221 percent surge in citizen lawsuits over government actions.
Xi and his predecessors have also introduced reforms targeting torture. Interrogations in major cases must theoretically be videotaped, and new “exclusionary rules” mandate that evidence obtained under torture be thrown out. Judges appointed under Xi have been public and vocal about the problem of wrongful convictions and torture. Though accurate numbers are hard to come by, scholars say that courts have accelerated efforts to overturn wrongful convictions from years past, with at least 1,317 cases retried in 2014.
The goal, according to Xi, is to ensure that “the popular masses feel that they have received fairness and justice in every case.” That’s a daunting task, but one that both Xi and scholars say is crucial to the survival of the Communist Party.
“If his whole project of legal reform — of revitalizing the China Dream and the Party — is going to be successful, it will hinge upon public perception of whether or not these reforms are successful in delivering the sense of justice that they want,” said Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The jury is still out on that question, but early results have not been promising. AHuman Rights Watch study found that two years after anti-torture protections went into effect, police and judges either worked around or ignored most provisions. Out of 432 criminal verdicts that mentioned allegations of torture, evidence was rarely excluded and zero defendants were acquitted. A recent study by Amnesty International came to much the same conclusion: torture remained widespread, with human rights lawyers among the targets as well.
Carl Minzner, a scholar of Chinese law and governance at the Fordham University School of Law, says those problems are likely to persist as long as the Party maintains a monopoly on oversight.
“Real institutional change requires you to have an organic evolution,” Minzner told The WorldPost. “An organic evolution requires not just top-down policy changes. … You have to create some space for people at the bottom of the system to begin to use the channels.”
Professor He Jiahong, a Chinese legal scholar writing a book on torture, says the problem is as much educational as institutional: police and judges across China’s far-flung villages need to be both restrained and retrained. Hundreds of thousands of police officers need to expand their investigative skillset beyond beating a suspect senseless. Defense lawyers accustomed to conviction rates of 99.9 percent need to learn how to stick up for their clients. Judges who spent decades rubber-stamping the prosecution’s case need to learn to challenge police conclusions.
“When we have provisions on paper at a legislative level, we have to wait some years for those provisions to be carried out at the grassroots level,” said Professor He. “China is a huge country and it might take 10 years.”
For Liu Renwang, justice took five years. He spent most of that time sitting in a communal cell with his hands and feet cuffed together. Card games were the only jailhouse diversion, but the lingering effects of his beatings meant he couldn’t join in — whenever the game came around to him, he couldn’t remember what anyone else had played.
During those years, Liu’s second lawyer seized on China’s new exclusionary rule to throw out the confessions Liu had made under torture. Without those confessions the prosecutor’s case collapsed, and on Dec. 27, 2013, Liu found himself standing outside the prison’s gate.
“When people get out of prison, they’re supposed to be happy,” Liu told The WorldPost. “When I came out, I felt heavy, depressed.”
On the car ride home he sobbed uncontrollably for half an hour while his wife and son tried to comfort him.
While Liu was away, the cave home he’d lived in since birth had collapsed. He moved the family into an abandoned school that he helped build as a teenager, and today his wife washes clothes in a neighboring town for a living. Liu’s short-term memory and body remain deeply scarred. He says he can’t work, and instead spends his time applying for the government compensation that he has yet to receive.
Whenever possible, he prefers to stay away from the village he grew up in. He hates the stares, the people who turned against him, the hotel in the distance that was the scene of his torment.
Liu credits President Xi’s legal reforms with his release, saying he would still be in prison if it weren’t for top-down reforms and increased transparency. But looking at his life in the village — at the fact that two years after release he’s yet to receive any compensation — Liu says he doesn’t believe things have truly changed out here.
“Your life is in someone else’s hands. If they say you’re going in, then you’re going in. If they say you’re coming out, then that’s what’s happening.”
(You can read the original article and see more of Matjaz’s picture here.)
SHANGHAI — They call her “poison tongue.” Jin Xing has verbally bitch-slapped TV hosts, stormed off sets and carved out a reputation as a straight-talker who does things her own way.
“My words aren’t like massage oil — they’re like acupuncture needles,” Jin Xing (pronounced “jeen shing”) told The WorldPost. “They go right to the nerve and twist it.”
But right now Jin is silent. She sits in her chair backstage at the Shanghai People’s Theatre, glaring at a script while her team prepares her for the night ahead. They’re dabbing on makeup, snipping stray strands of hair and lining up three costume changes. She’ll be taking the stage to deliver almost two hours of stinging social commentary interspersed with performances by her dance troupe. Tonight’s show marks her first live theater performance since the debut of her new TV talk show, “The Jin Xing Show.”
Jin says she’s “always nervous” before taking the stage, but these aren’t the jitters of someone new to the spotlight — she has been performing at the peak of the dance world for decades, and her television appearances have been lighting up TVs and iPads for years. These are the nerves of a perfectionist, someone who demands that each punch line is on point and every gesture is executed so precisely that it appears effortless.
Looking straight at the mirror in front of her, she delivers instructions to Xiao Nan, the tuxedoed young man who plays her assistant and foil.
“When the drum roll is going for your entrance, let it roll for a minute before you come out,” Jin advises. “You need that expectation to build.”
For Jin, 47, the expectations have been building for close to three decades. Over that time, she’s charted a course that was almost unimaginable at the beginning. Jin, a transgender woman, has gone from being crowned China’s best male dancer while performing with the People’s Liberation Army troupe, to becoming China’s most celebrated female talk show host and the mother of three children.
These days, on the weekly “Jin Xing Show,” she riffs on the cultural milieu of modern China, ragging on the nouveau riche and dispensing motherly advice. Dressed in an exquisitely tailored qipao, Jin offers up earthy wisdom, biting sarcasm and stories from her own larger-than-life background. The show’s aesthetic harks back to 1920s Shanghai — a gilded age of international glitz and organized crime — and Jin glides across the stage with a dancer’s grace.
But it was when Jin’s formidable temper smashed that serene surface last year that she went viral. While serving as a judge on China’s first season of “So You Think You Can Dance,” Jin tore into the show’s host for trying to pull a sob story out of a contestant who’d been injured.
“Chinese TV always digs at people’s scars, consumes their pain. This is the biggest weakness of Chinese TV and I hate it!” Jin spat out, doing nothing to conceal her contempt. “I hope that on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ we won’t use people’s pain, we won’t use people’s sympathy, we won’t use people’s suffering.”
The show’s host was stunned. Audiences loved it. Nine months later she was on the air with her nationally broadcast talk show.
Jin’s star is rising (literally translated, her name means “gold star” or “Venus”), and it draws fuel from a deep well of ambition. She sees herself becoming the Oprah Winfrey of China, and then using that popularity and power to enter politics.
“A long time ago, people told me I’d become a politician and I said, ‘I know, but not yet.’ All of this, this talk show, everything, it’s all preparation,” Jin told The WorldPost.
China’s government often rewards apolitical celebrities like basketball player Yao Ming and actor Jackie Chan with token appointments to ceremonial political bodies. Jin said she won’t be taking that route.
“I don’t want to go through the ordinary ways,” she said. “I have my own ways. People say I’ll be the most influential woman in this country. I say, ‘I know it, but not yet. I’m working on it.’”
Ambition on that scale would border on delusion if it weren’t for Jin’s remarkable past.
Growing up in China’s cold northeast, Jin knew from an early age that she wasn’t like the other little boys.
Girls’ toys held more appeal and Jin envied her big sister’s femininity. During a storm, 6-year-old Jin stood out in the rain hoping lightning would strike and transform her into a girl. But the lightning never came and Jin trudged back inside soaking wet.
Jin became a member of the army’s performance troupe at the age of 9, enduring training regimens that she said would be clear-cut child abuse in the U.S. But the sacrifice paid off. In 1986, at the age of 18, Jin won China’s national dance competition with a performance of Mongolian ethnic dance.
Two years later, Jin arrived in New York with a prestigious scholarship to study modern dance and an English vocabulary that consisted of, “Hello, excuse me, thank you, bye.”
“If I think of the one thing I’m proud of, it’s that … the day I stood on Madison Avenue I started being in charge of my own life,” Jin said. “I have no leader, I don’t take any salary from my unit, and by age 22 I was paying other people.”
Jin left the U.S. three years later, after winning major accolades for her choreography of the dance piece “Half Dream.” Following teaching stints in Italy and Belgium (she speaks five languages), Jin returned to China with one goal in mind: to bring her public persona in line with her private self.
Jin chose to have gender confirmation surgery — and she wanted to undergo the procedure in China. In 1994, Chinese doctors had almost no experience with such operations, she said, but still she felt a pull to make the change at home that was part spiritual, part superstitious.
“I need the chi, I need the earth. I need them to protect me,” she said. “In a Western environment maybe the technology is there, but my soul is too lonely.”
Jin emerged from the operation to find that one leg had been partially paralyzed. Doctors told her she would be walking with a limp from that day forth, but three grueling months later she was back on stage dancing.
Stares and raised eyebrows followed her for a time, but Jin gained instant approval from the only two people who she said mattered: her parents.
“I fully respect the copyright. If those two people don’t mind me changing their creation, then why should I mind other people’s opinions?”
Over the next decade Jin founded an independent dance troupe, opened a bar, closed that bar, adopted three children by herself, and met her future husband, a German businessman working in Shanghai.
In between family time and international tours, she began appearing as a judge on talent shows. Those programs are where Jin first earned the “poison tongue” moniker for cutting through the fluff that dominates Chinese TV.
Elisa Montalvo, an American dancer and choreographer who has worked with the Black Eyed Peas, first saw Jin when she stormed off the set of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Two dancers who had previously worked together were “randomly” paired up, and Jin refused to participate in the charade.
“Jin Xing always does things the right way and the true way, even if it goes against what people expect or what’s comfortable for them,” Montalvo told The WorldPost.
“There’s this fear of [disrupting] the harmony, so people always go around the back door. But she’s very direct. … There’s no b.s.”
But even she has to bite her poison tongue from time to time, Jin admits. Politics is a strict no-go zone for sharp remarks, and apparently benign bits of social commentary can turn sensitive with a change in political winds. Jin credits her decade-plus of military training with helping her walk that line.
“I know where the boundaries are,” Jin said. “I’m not against the government. I’m not against the [Communist] Party. I’m just saying the reality, the facts.”
For the past two years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a tightening of state control over popular culture and a crackdown on any form of activism outside official channels. That effort would appear to throw a wrench in Jin’s plans for turning her public persona into political power.
She knows the value of patience, however, and she describes her show as the perfect platform from which to build her fan base and bide her time. At her recent live performance in Shanghai, Jin deployed two hours’ worth of material on topics like marriage and materialism. She closed the night with an audience interaction performance of “Little Apple,” the country’s biggest line dance pop hit.
“I know this country, I know what time it is. I don’t want to make [people] happy for one day and the next day the show is closed down,” Jin said. “I need to slowly spend time to build up the foundations. One day this show is going to be grown up, and then no one can touch it. Nobody can touch it.”
(You can read my original Beijing Cream post here.)
It’s 8:40 pm on a Friday. We’re lined up at the China Eastern Airlines counter a full ninety minutes before takeoff, and I have everything I need for a great, just-quit-work weekend: passport, check; cleats, check; Frisbee, check; baijiu-Fanta mix, check. But just then, China decides to remind me where I am. Ahead of us in line, an argument begins to stew, froth, and bubble. The verbal combatants are an elderly couple, possibly from the countryside, and two overdressed, overly made-up, and apparently overconfident young women.
The initial dispute is over whether a luggage cart bumped into an ankle, but it gets ugly fast: one of the girls taunts the old man’s ability to speak standard Mandarin Chinese. Airline employees break up the verbal sparring as quickly as they can, but the tone for the evening has been set. At the counter, a friendly but frazzled attendant tells me my flight doesn’t yet have a gate, and I already have an idea of what I’m in for.
“Does that mean the flight is going to be delayed?”
“There’s no way to know right now. Just head through security, take a seat and wait.”
By 10 pm I’ve slumped into chairs around the corner from the China Eastern counter along with 30-plus fellow travelers to Ningbo. There’s a collective nervousness about the total lack of information, but a sense of safety in the knowledge that they wouldn’t leave withoutall of us. As the minutes tick by, most people have their eyes on the flight monitor, but mine keep wandering to the company whiteboard that sits upside down and untouched in the corner:
“Hello, today’s flight ____ to ____ has been delayed because of ____. We are very sorry for all inconveniences. This sign will be updated every five minutes.”
At 10:50 the television monitor makes its opening play: 32登机口. Gate 32. The news travels via murmur through our group, and we show detectable optimism as we head down the causeway. What greets us on arrival at Gate 32, however, kills that flicker of hope. The expansive gate is populated by a few men in cheap suits who are slumped creatively around the arms of airport benches.
Our group hasn’t sat for more than ten minutes when the flight monitor makes its second play: Gate 19. The number flashes for a minute before settling into a steady neon blue. Our fellow travelers, with their luggage and their discontent, now make their way back down to the far end of the terminal. Gate 19 forms a cul de sac at this end, and the geography matches the mood. As we sink into our seats, people begin fearing the worst and getting ready for the long haul. Instant noodles are purchased, playing cards come out, pillows are unpacked, and you get a moment to appreciate how good Chinese travelers are at settling in wherever they find themselves.
My frame doesn’t fit well on airport benches, so I abandon any expectation of rest and concentrate on worrying. A delayed flight is expected in China, but there’s something eerie about the ever-changing gates and the fact that they’re still advertising a 10:40 pm take-off at 11:45. The airport is fast emptying of staff, and our group hasn’t had contact with China Eastern employees since they were last seen two hours ago.
A few members of the group are dialing airport help lines when the television monitor makes another bold change. At 12:15 am, the monitor informs us that our flight will be departing from Gate 32… at 10:40 pm. Several passengers rise to the bait, but while we’re gathering bags, our collective angst turns into action. The group quickly coalesces behind some very vocal middle-aged women who have had enough. As they spout off, the loose gaggle of passengers transforms into a posse out for blood.
With the China Eastern desk long-since abandoned, the mob rounds a corner to find a break room where employees of another airline are eating Ramen. At this point, anyone wearing a uniform is deemed guilty by association. On the defensive, the workers deny any connection with our airline. Asked where the China Eastern people are, they reply, “They already clocked out.”
Fresh blood on a shark snout, that comment. The middle-aged women — we’ll call them the Aunties — are beside themselves and immediately pull out the big guns. “Everybody send out Weibos! Everybody send out Weibos!” Nervous anger and microblog posts begin to emanate out from our group. We demand that our two hostages contact China Eastern people, and we only leave when reports trickle in that our airline’s people are back at the counter.
Marching down the concourse for the third time, our posse is riling itself up for confrontation. As voices grow shriller, distinct sub-groups begin to emerge. At the front the Aunties are feisty and feeble at the same time. They’re dressed and hair-dyed in a way to showcase their (or their husband’s) moderate financial success. Creeping through their 50s, the three women appear to have channeled decades of quiet emotional suffering into indignation over the 800 meters they’ve been forced to walk tonight.
On the other hand, one of the words you keep hearing bounce around their conversation is “rights,” e.g., “consumer rights.” Now that’s something that’s rarely brought up in China (outside of CCTV’s exposes of “malicious” foreign firms), and it’s one that could use a little more play. Consumer rights in China are abysmal, with a company generally considered socially conscious if it doesn’t poison or outright defraud you. These Aunties’ tone may be shrill, but there’s a kernel of a legitimate complaint in there.
Behind them is a loosely assembled group of half a dozen young men. Nearly all wearing black jackets and tacky shirts, the guys look like the kind of people who hang out on street corners and try to sell you receipts or stolen Motorola Razrs. A Chinese person with strong regional prejudices might guess that the men were from Henan. We’ll call them the Goodfellas.
The rest of us are tag-alongs, sharing in the ire but unsure what to make of it. As we approach the China Eastern counter, now populated by three female employees, the Aunties’ wrath finds a target.
“Where the hell have you guys been? We’ve been marching back and forth for hours with no sign of what’s going on!”
“We’ve been here the whole time.” (Lie.) “And why have you been marching back and forth? The flight is delayed and departing from Gate 40.” (Infuriating, but interesting tact.)
As the employees persist with a combination of bald-faced lies and potential half-truths, the outline of our conflict takes shape. China Eastern’s position is that after a brief delay in information, the flight has consistently been set to depart from Gate 40 once the plane arrives. Our claim that monitors have been displaying a revolving stream of gates is met with absolute denial from the employees: the monitors have always displayed Gate 40.
This unfortunate employee has wandered in past her depth here, and she realizes she’s in trouble when the Aunties, Goodfellas, and tag-alongs cry out: “TURN AROUND!” “LOOK AT THE GOD DAMN SCREEN BEHIND YOU!” “READ ME WHAT IT SAYS ON THE MONITOR!” Oohhh. That’s going to be a tough one to wriggle out of, so the woman takes a bold stand: she will not turn around and look at the screen.
Cue: Frenzy Feed.
Everyone gets in on the action, with even the most reserved members of the posse spewing venom across the counter. Company policies are being cited, compensation is being demanded, and someone’s character is being called into question. Camera-phones are snapping pictures of faces, name tags, and television monitors. Cornered and argumentatively crippled, the woman calls for reinforcements in the form of a mid-level manager.
When back-up arrives, it is calmer, friendlier and about 125 pounds heavier. The man appears to be in his early 30s, and has probably sat through a few graduate classes on customer service. His hair is dyed and styled to appear slightly more Western, and his healthy potbelly also takes after certain aspects of Americana.
A fresh perspective and some diplomacy buy the man time, but in the end he’s fighting a losing battle. The Aunties quickly work themselves into a frenzy, citing a litany of health issues aggravated by tonight’s regimen of waiting and walking. One with dyed red hair and a complexion to match begins pounding the counter and lecturing Mr. Middle-Manager on her high blood pressure.
The Goodfellas have taken up positions safely behind the Aunties, contributing nothing except a periodic “Yea! She said it!” and the occasional slander of someone’s mother. One member of the gang makes his first real foray into the debate by wadding up a newspaper and throwing it at the manager’s head. It’s a bullseye, granted one without a whole lot of force.
This is where our pudgy middle manager truly shines, if just for a moment. He bows his head, takes a deep breath and says, “You know what, respect goes both ways,” before plodding ahead with his analysis. Unfortunately his position in the argument isn’t proving quite so flexible.
“The flight has always been scheduled for Gate 40… No, I won’t turn around and look at the screen… No, there won’t be any compensation for you passengers. OK?”
The last rhetorical “OK” is uttered in English over his shoulder as he turns to walk away from the counter. The man doesn’t make it two steps before a half-full plastic water bottle sails out of the crowd, over my shoulder and directly into the left cheek of Mr. Middle-Manager.
The man turns on a dime and lunges at the counter as the Aunties retreat. His pudgy fingers grasp at the culprit, a darker man in a grey jacket who is smirking from a safe distance. Slowly awaking to the public relations disaster on their hands, two male employees grab Mr. Middle-Manager by the arms as their female co-workers whip out camera phones and snap pictures of the culprit. The better restrained the big man becomes, the bolder our water-bottle thrower grows. He steps up to the counter and wags fingers accompanied by curses in Mr. Middle-Manager’s face.
By this point there are enough camera-phone angles on the scene to accommodate a Matrix-style freeze-frame 360. Each side is hoping to gather evidence for the coming trial to be waged on Chinese social media.
Unfortunately, our manager isn’t doing his side any favors. His initial composure has given way to an elephant seal battle for male supremacy. In struggling to free himself for the offensive, the man exposes his ample belly. Pushed up against a wall he grabs for the only large projectile on hand: a metal stool. Cursing the stench of his assailants’ mothers’ reproductive organs, Mr. Middle-Manager lifts the stool for launch. Lucky for him, one of his co-workers manages to get a hand on it, deflecting the missile onto the counter. The China Eastern staffers hold tight as the aggrieved manager rages and wriggles. Weaponry and energy deprived, Mr. Middle-Manager contents himself with a purely verbal assault as he’s ushered away.
As China Eastern’s lone combatant is dragged off to a back office, some female employees have managed to get around the counter and directly photograph the water bottle thrower’s face. Soon the argument re-centers around the bottle thrower, the Aunties and a gaggle of female employees. By constantly upping the ante and baiting the employees, one cunning Auntie manages to get a woman to swear at her. They all immediately seize on the lone curse word, wagging their fingers in the face of the embarrassed woman who knows she’s slipped up.
The chaos has finally garnered the attention of a higher-up who comes down to fill the role of our fallen middle-manager. He takes a similar tack, apologizing and even bowing. But our impassioned defenders of customer rights are not to be so easily placated. Despite inciting the scuffle, both the Goodfellas and the Aunties are now demanding financial compensation and a direct apology from Mr. Middle-Manager.
As it becomes increasingly clear that neither of these will be forthcoming, most of the tag-alongs begin the slow walk down to Gate 40. Some time between 1 and 2 am, our 10:40 pm flight finally begins boarding. We take our assigned seats along with around a hundred other customers who somehow did get the memo on Gate 40. In the end, the final delay comes from the Aunties and the Goodfellas who defended their honor until the bitter end. They trickle onto the plane after half an hour, empty-handed but determined to give off the mien of victory. The Aunties’ conversations are dialed up four notches as they give a blow-by-blow retelling of the most exciting thing that’s happened to them in a decade. When the emotional hollowness of the conversation really starts to grind my gears I pipe up with a simple, “That’s enough, thanks.” It earns a stink face from an Auntie, but voices are lowered.
Four hours after our scheduled takeoff, China Eastern Airlines MU5177 gains speed down the runway and finally takes off into the black Beijing night.